EARTH RADIO (1974-1979)
When KSFM rocked Sacramento
by Alex Cosper
see also The Rise of Alternative Radio
See Sacramento Radio History Interviews on Video
A new progressive rock station sprung up on the Sacramento radio dial at 102.5 FM in April 1974. It came to be known for
the rest of the decade as Earth Radio. Many creative people would come and go during this magical time when Sacramento
had at least a few adventurous choices on the FM dial. The station proved that jocks choosing their own music from a huge album library could generate incredible ratings. But by the end of the decade, along with a national wave in rock radio, the station shifted its concern to commercial considerations and flipped from rock to disco.
© 2004 Alex Cosper. All Rights Reserved.
The Woodland, CA frequency originally went on the air in 1961 as KATT-FM and was called "The Tiger Tail." The format was Middle of the Road mixed with block programming. Then after an unsuccessful run the station went dark in the late sixties and returned in the spring of 1970 as top 40 station KRBT, which was owned by a 1950's KXOA jock named "Wild" Bill Elliot. The Program Director was Johnny Hyde, who had taken KROY to number one in the market. Hyde also did an airshift, as did Tom Cale. But the budget quickly dried up, so Elliot switched to an automated top 40 format using announcements by "Robot 10-25." It became one of the first automated stations in Sacramento, which they promoted.
In 1973 KULA Broadcasting Company purchased for practically nothing the low power station that barely reached the outskirts of Sacramento. KULA Broadcasting also owned KULA in Honolulu, KFAX in San Francisco and KGMS (1380 AM) in Sacramento. The primary owner was A.J. Crissek. The station acquired the KSFM call letters after Sacramento's original KSFM (96.9 FM, circa 1971) dropped the call letters in an ownership change. The FCC then granted Ted Wolf, the KGMS GM who oversaw the KSFM project, permission to increase power to 50,000 watts. The station had remained automated playing "dentist office music" during construction of a new 540 foot tower at the transmitter site between Davis and Woodland. When the improvements were near completion, Wolf hired Steve Rosetta to oversee the new station.
KZAP had paved the way and now had to deal with competition. While KZAP began moving from freeform to a more commercial direction, KSFM debuted as a more streamlined progressive rock station, calling itself Earth Radio. The first Program Director was former KZAP salesman and KNDE jock Don Wright. Together with former KZAP jock Michael Sheehy, the two combined their record collections to create the first Earth Radio music library. What's kind of funny is that Don had just passed on KZAP's offer to do mornings for $650 per month.
Don says, "In April of 1974, KZAP's morning DJ, Zacharria (Zack Boles) left for more money and a 4-day work week at
KCTC-FM. I had just left KNDE when they went Boss Radio. The GM of KZAP (Ed Beimfohr) had offered me the morning shift.
As I was literally on my way out my front door to meet with Ed and make it official with KZAP, my phone rang. It
was Steve Rosetta, former GM of KXOA-FM and KNDE. He was calling from KGMS, where they had decided to try and
do something with their little FM station in Woodland, KSFM. They had just put in a new 50kw transmitter and a new tower
with an experimental circular polarized antenna. He asked if I would come down to and talk to them. I was there in minutes.
"I had to do an on-the-fly presentation of what I would do with the station to General Manager Ted Wolfe. The weird thing
was, I had to pitch against a well known corporate radio heavyweight named George Burns who was trying to sell Wolfe and
Rosetta on an automated top 40 format. We had to pitch against each other in the same room at the same time! I explained
my idea for the Earth Rock - basically a hybrid of the best of top 40 rock and the best of "progressive" rock. We would
eliminate the bubble gum and overly commercial pop from the top 40 music keeping the 'hip' singles, and eliminate the "real
far out" album stuff and long boring self-indulgent guitar and drum solos from the progressive playlists, and have it all presented by air personalities that were not too hip or too hype with their delivery style."
They chose Don Wright and Earth Rock and the station signed on the air in mid April of 1974. Wright was paid a whopping $700 a month plus a traded-out condominium at American River Commons. The name Earth Rock, however, was changed to Earth Radio in July of 1974. "It seems that Drake-Chenault, which owned KXOA-FM at the time," reveals Don, "had filed for and obtained a service mark on the term Earth Rock. Rather than fight them in court, we changed it to Earth Radio and this time we copyrighted it!"
Robert Williams, who became PD of KZAP shortly after the competition began, says, "My initial thought was there was room for both of us. The Earth Radio folks never seemed to be serious competition. I should have taken it more seriously. But I just felt Sacramento could handle another album rock radio station. A couple of the guys, people like David Whittaker, I remember, tried for a long time to get me to hire him at KZAP. I would have if I had a space available. He probably thought at the time I was making up excuses not to hire him but I would have. He ended up going to KSFM when they started, and I felt good for him because he finally got on the radio and wanted to and he was good."
The first Music Director and Promotions Director for Earth Radio was one of the original KZAP pioneers, Jeff Hughson, but he didn't stay long. "I enjoyed being on the air," says Jeff. "I never thought I had the greatest pipes in the world. By then there were guys with better on-air presence or voice than me. So my ego wasn't such that I needed to be on full-time. So I volunteered and said you know what? Why don't I devote my time to music and promotions and I'll just do a weekend shift. I shouldn't have done that because after I did that then a book came out: KSFM is like a big success, making money hand over fist but KGMS, their AM sister station, is inevitably going down the tubes. They're losing money. So they decided I was expendible because I wasn't full time on the air. So I got fired because of a budget cut."
The station's first morning show went to Steve Dahl, who had already been heard in Sacramento on KROY. Dahl caused the Woodland Chamber of Commerce to file a complaint with station management because he kept referring to Woodland as "The Sticks." Steve went on to fame in Chicago with his "Disco Sucks" record burnings at Comisky Park. The frenzy coincided with his national single in 1979 called "Do You Think I'm Disco," which was a musical parody of the Rod Stewart hit. He went on to be a successful talk host on Chicago radio.
Dahl's replacement on Earth Radio was Tom Mix ("The Mixer"). Tom had worked at a Ukiah, CA radio station where he had been fired along with other talented people for rocking the boat. "I'd been sitting around doing nothing, collecting unemployment," remembers Tom, "living out in Redwood Valley in a little house in the middle of a bunch of vineyards at an old ranch, searching by phone and mail for a real radio gig in progressive rock. My friend Bob Castle, 'The Blue Whiz' at KROY, called me up and told me about this new prog station that was going on the air in Woodland. I sent a tape over after a short conversation with Don Wright. Called him back a week later, and he told me he had the field narrowed down from fifty something to six tapes, and to check back. Checked back... HIRED! Suddenly I'm the morning man at a 50K watter blasting rock music...my dream. I was replacing Steve Dahl. I did mornings for a few months."
Then when the evening jock injured his shoulder one afternoon in a dirtbike accident, the station asked Tom Mix, could you please fill in for Ray? "Man, I couldn't get showered up and ready fast enough," says Mix. "We were dayparted and I never got to fully rock on in the mornings. Don heard my evening show. Next thing I know he's calling me, telling me I rocked the evenings the way he wanted, and would I switch to evenings. Hell, same crappy pay, but more rock n roll...worked for me."
The list of early Earth Radio air personalities includes Steve Dahl, Don Wright, Michael Sheehy, Ken Beck, Tom Mix, Tom Cale, Burt Baumgartner, Chip Hobart (fired after just two airshifts), Larry (later LeRoy, then just Lee) Hansen and Karen Hadlock. Burt Baumgartner became a big name in the record business at Columbia and eventually an industry commentator at MusicBiz.com. Tom Cale was a successful morning host and Program Director of KZAP in the eighties.
"I had a 27 share in afternoon drive," says Michael Sheehy. "Hell, Tom Mix at night had a 34 share. That's unhearch of. We then proceeded to promote all but one major concert event for the following year. One Beach Boys show sold out in two hours. It was an amazing place run on chemistry. I've never seen anything like it since...Pure magic. Hell, they ran my recorded 'Earth Radio for all of Norther California' ID for 5 years after I left. For that matter, Lee Hanson at the Smooth Jazz station has Ken Jones doing a really cheesy imitation of the way I used to say 'K-ASS-FM.' Check it out. Ken says 'K-ASS-ASS-J.' Before we got there the old station had billed $8,000 for the quarter. By the end of our second week we had billed about $40,000. It was amazing!" Despite the cash flow, all the owner would offer after a year of success was a $25 raise to $525, which had several jocks including Michael bolting for new jobs.
How was Earth Radio different from KZAP? "Physically, we had much worse equipment," says Don Wright. "We were located in a former veteranary hospital adjacent to a Massey-Fergusen Tractor dealership in Woodland. KZAP had a cool downtown location with a view. We had big heavy sugar beet and tomato trucks drive past the KSFM studios whose rumbling vibrations would literally make the stylus jump out of the groove of the record playing. KZAP had air conditioning. KSFM had a galvanized steel washtub that we would put a block of ice from the gas station in every morning. There was a fan behind it that would blow the cool air toward the DJ. This was a gift from our generous general manager, Ted Wolfe, for becoming #1 in our first rating book. Our full time jocks started at $500 per month - even lousier than the pay at KZAP. At least we had free parking. And our music and delivery styles were also quite different. We got a lot of mileage out of playing up being the new upstarts from 'way out in Woodland.' "
Another emerging competitor was K-108, which debuted as a rock station in 1974. This created a three-way rock radio battle in Sacramento. "All three stations had something to prove," says Don, "namely whose format was better. We were all going for primarily the same audience in very different ways. KZAP was definitely cooler in the traditional freeform sense, but KSFM was a little more crazy and certainly more musically unpredictable. We drew some of our audience share from KZAP, but also from KXOA-FM (rock oldies). We were one of only three area stations playing any kind of rock on FM at the time, and with our frequency being 102.5, loads of listeners discovered us accidentally while tuning across between KZAP at 98.5 and KXOA-FM at 107.9. We got listeners from both top 40 and country AM as well. Yes, country - we played The Byrds, Eagles, Wayon Jennings, and New Riders. I had a friend who had a large jukebox route and he used to provide me with which songs were being played the most on his jukeboxes which were located in bars and restaurants all over the area."
But the rivalry wasn't an unfriendly one, as there were people who worked for both stations at one time or another.
"I'm sure there were many times that the various airstaffs at KSFM and KZAP would sit around ragging on the other
station's dj's, format, new receptionist, etc," says Don. "But over all, we were downright friendly. Most of us knew each other and hung out together socially. As for KXOA-FM, We nailed 'em pretty good. They were having this contest where you write and record a song about Sacramento and send it in to the station. If your song was chosen a winner, it went on an album of songs about Sacramento! So Michael Sheehy, weekender Burt Baumgartner and I head down to my cousin's recording studio in the Bay Area to record the hastily composed "Sacramento Boogie - Part 2." We got the tape to KXOA-FM just before the deadline. We submitted the tape as a band called Pye Flasher. So the next few days, we start hearing Sacramento Boogie Part 2 by Pye Flasher on KXOA-FM! We laughed until we couldn't take it anymore and I finally called the PD at KXOA and fessed up. At first, he seemed kind of pissed, then thought it was pretty clever. And yes, the song made it to the album."
Despite Earth Radio pulling stunning ratings in the Winter of 1975, the rewards were questionable and it marked a mass exodus of the people who made it happen. Michael Sheehy left in May 1975 to program KPOI in Honolulu. The next month Don Wright left to program San Jose rock station KSJO. He took most of the full-time airstaff with him, with the exception of a few people. It was a reaction to the $25 a month raise slap in the face that was offered to the jocks after delivering strong ratings for the station.
"Oh yeah, I remember that meeting when we had finished the killer book and nailed the valley radiowise," recalls Tom Mix. "I got up at dawn after doing my evening show, took a seven mile run, showered and showed up at the station on a grey morning for the meeting. Rosetta was there with Ted Wolf. Ted promptly announced that he was willing to go $25 a month across the board.' We all looked around at one another, shocked beyond belief. We were speechless. We had voted down a union contract with the IBEW on the strength of 'backdoor' promises of serious raises after we delivered a great book. Now this. With decent raises, KSFM could have kept that team and mounted an even more powerful assault on the airwaves of the Sacramento Valley...no doubt about it."
The first News Director was Ken Beck, the future husband of a future morning host on the station named Karen Hadlock, who was originally hired for weekends by Wright in 1974 and then moved up to overnights the following year. Ken's department included Earth News from Lou Irwin, a national insert which was sponsored by Herbal Essence Shampoo. Beck succeeded Wright as Operations Manager/PD. One of the jocks Ken hired was Gene Mitchell, also known as Doc Holiday, from Stockton, even though at first Ken thought he was too hyper for album rock. Gene ended up at rocker KLOS in Los Angeles for decades as Gino Mitchellini.
Ken named Tom Mix as Music Director and afternoon drive host. With the new programming people came a big move for Billy Vega, a friend of Mix who jumped from weekends to evenings. Mix remembers the period: "Ken Beck got my pay doubled up immediately and things ran smoothly. However, the guys I had worked with, Don Wright, Burt Baumgartner and Steve Rosetta, had gone to San Jose to run KSJO. They kept at me to come down there and work, and eventually in November of '75 I went, along with Billy, and another wild chapter of my radio career began... the wildest, craziest radio/life experience. Gotta watch what you wish for...sometimes it comes true, but it's just a bit twisted from the dream."
Karen Hadlock started out on the air at UC Davis campus station KDVS, where several other Earth Radio and KZAP alumni started including Roger d'Moon, Gordo, Ken Beck, Ed Fong, and Hank Schwartz, who was KSFM's chief engineer and later did the same job at KXOA before becoming a medical doctor. Bob Jiminez eventually became a television news anchor in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Karen's best friend was a UC Davis student who roomed with KDVS guys Ed Fong and Don Tyer.
"I wasn't even a student," Karen jokes, "but went down to the station, learned to run a board. My friend taped my first show.....argh. Very college sounding." That was in 1972 under KDVS GM Ken Beck.
Karen was the daughter of an earlier KGMS PD. Jim Hadlock brought his family to Sacramento in July 1959 when he took the PD job for a few years. Throughout the sixties he worked in television as a booth announcer for KXTV Channel 10 and then helped put KPOP on the air as an MOR station in 1968. He also was the voice of the Speedways in West Sacramento and Roseville.
"I ended up being a rabid KZAP listener while working at a pet hospital," Karen says, "and came to be the first female DJ Don Wright hired...I started KSFM as weekends and Donald paid me really well, something like $8 per hour! I moved to overnight weekdays, then into morning drive pitted against Marla at KZAP. You can check ratings, but I think KSFM did well." Karen began doing the morning show in early 1976. When asked to described her morning show, she says, "Goofy. I followed the format. Played more female-oriented tunes (as opposed to the Tom Mix, Tom Cale, etc. more male selections) because we did have some choices."
During her overnight stage, she was on the air at the same time as Dave Whittaker at KZAP. Karen remembers, "I use to call him and ask him to call me so I could nap while Earth News ran!" Tom Cale followed her with his morning show. Karen confirms in our 2004 interview that the studio atmosphere had a certain craziness: "Crickets jumping on you while back announcing, me going topless in summer and wearing a down jacket in winter, complete with skull cap. Donald had a format but I took liberties in overnights. Ken and I did the Hangover show Sunday morning because no one wanted to work that shift. Ah the memories." Another KZAP memory she has is that she talked with Scott McConnell on occasion and one night sat in on his show and he played the song "How Long" by Ace. "He had the 45 and LP versions and continuously segued between the two. Oh my senses were ripped by the hilarity of the (lyrics) 'how long has this been going on? "
Ken Beck was let go by owner A.J. Crissek. Ken and Karen got married August 28, 1976 and moved to Los Angeles where Ken worked at stations K-100, KMPC and KFI. Karen did weekends at KNAC in Long Beach but lost interest and
shifted to studying accounting at UCLA, which led to her getting a sales gig at KEZY AM/FM. "Hated that job," she says,
"My account list was the phone book." That was were she worked with Rick Carroll and a very young
Jed the Fish. She returned to the airwaves at Loyola Marymount University station KXLU as Wendy Day briefly. Ken would later work at news/talk KGO in San Francisco before moving back to L.A., to news station, KFWB. Then in another amazing twist of fate, they returned to KGO and then crosstown KPIX, which led to a move to sister combo WWJ/WXYT in Detroit, owned by Infinity. Both of them worked there with Ken serving as Operations manager and Karen doing sales and talent scouting for fitness and financial talk shows. The couple then bounced around the country a few more times to Kansas City and then Seattle where Ken is now VP of News, Talk and Sports programming for Entercom, for several markets. Karen has used her communication skills to make a career out of teaching fitness, dancing and yoga.
Dennis Newhall had left afternoons at KZAP to follow the gang at KSJO in 1975. Dennis then returned to Sacramento a year later as a jock under PD Patrick Moore, who guided the station to a more tighter, restrictive presentation. Moore worked previously at KNDE and ended up working for the government. In 1977 Dennis Newhall became Earth Radio's PD and loosened things up again, with more emphasis on artistic segues. Some of the late seventies jocks of Earth Radio included morning host Dianne Michaels (1977-1979), night wacko David Whittaker, Don West, Nick Rhodes, Kevin Kelly and Dave Williams.
Although Earth Radio was able to beat KZAP in its target demographics and rake in good sales, the station's management chose to shift the format to contemporary hits in the fall of 1979, becoming FM 102 under consultant Jerry Clifton. It went on to become one of the three highest rated stations of the decade throughout the eighties. But to those who remember Earth Radio,
it was the last chance to hear unpredictability on Sacramento airwaves. Tom Cale remembers, "It was the last place I worked
that radio was any sort of art form. We had a book in the studio that was segues. So if you wanted to do something thematic
you could look in the book."
The beginning of the end for Earth Radio perhaps was tied to the station's ratings fall from 4.7 (12+) to 3.1 in the Spring 1979 Arbitron. The reaction in the market was initially rumors of a format change to either country or a more mainstream format. In August the station announced it would be switching to a
"mass appeal format" the following month. Later in the month (8/20/79) the Sacramento Union featured an article about the upcoming changes in which the entire air staff would be replaced. In the article, Jerry Clifton described Earth Radio as "esoteric...similar to a jazz station."
Then on September 9, 1979, KSFM broadcast its final full day of progressive rock. The following day the station kicked off five days of stunting in which each day was dedicated to a specific artist. The first day was exclusively music by Led Zeppelin, followed by a day of the Beatles. By the fifth day the station was playing Donna Summer and the Bee Gees as featured artists. On September 14, 1979, the new FM 102 made its debut. Within a year KSFM had overtaken KROY in the battle for the hits.
Having the benefit of working at Earth Radio and KZAP in the late seventies, Tom Cale is able to compare the two stations. He says, "KZAP became a mainstream rocker with the advent of the Abrams Superstars format. For that, you could equate 'mainstream' to McDonald's, designed for mass appeal. KSFM was less mainstream, but by no means as eclectic as KZAP had been over the course of its journey from '68 up to Abrams. KSFM played the hits, LOTS of them, but balanced the mass appeal stuff with material that was compatible with the hits, but still new, fresh, adventurous, etc. KSFM was never too far off mainstream, but compared to the Superstars 'hit machine' it appeared to be pretty loose, musically, but it wasn't."
In the summer of 2000 several Earth Radio alumni got together for a reunion on the river in Old Sac. It was a night of appreciation for wild memories when jocks had the power to paint highly creative and unpredictable pictures with sound.
EARTH RADIO LINE-UP 1978-1979
6A - 10A DIANE MICHAELS
10A - 12N DENNIS NEWHALL
12N - 3P LISA NOVAK
3P - 7P TOM CALE
7P - 12M DAVE WHITTAKER
12M - 6A JACK PERRY
weekends: NICK RHODES, DAVE HIPKIN, others
ROBERT ZIVKOVICH (2005): By the time I was 13 in late 1976, I was ready for a change from Top 40 and mellow rock
K-108. It came in the form of KSFM, Earth Radio 102, which had been around for about two and a half years before I began listening. That station changed my life forever. To this day, I still own my Earth Radio T-Shirts and a pair of Earthradio 102 Stickers. When I'd listen to KSFM, I was lucky if I heard the same song in a month. I heard air talent that knew how to pick music and combine it with a sense of low-key humor. You certainly don't find this sort of radio around on the commercial airwaves anymore.
The format was a combination of well-established "mainstream" and "up and coming" rock artists. While the station would play mainstream rock artists, the announcers often focused on deep album cuts. Additionally, the music flow was diverse enough that one could hear a searing Led Zeppelin track and a folksy Joni Mitchell song in the same set. Yet, somehow the music would flow naturally. The air talent programmed much of the music without the use of a set playlist. While a listener could hear an occasional country record by Jerry Jeff Walker or a reggae tune by Peter Tosh, they knew it would be followed by a rock record, seamlessly followed by a casual back announcement form knowledgeable air talent.
Also, KSFM's format was dayparted, so listeners would be treated to a much harder rock sound at night. Earth Radio 102 had little or no musical repetition. A listener truly did not know what they would be hearing next.
When they flipped to their Jerry Clifton-consulted "mass appeal" format on September 14, 1979, I owned about 30 LP vinyl albums. I realized I couldn't hear the variety I heard on KSFM on the "Superstars"- consulted KZAP (the only game in town, prior to the evolution of KROY-FM and AM into AOR in 1980/1981). So I began assembling my own collection of music. Today, I have in excess of 2,500 records and CDs. I personally blame that on Dennis Newhall, Tom Cale, Dave Whitaker and the rest of the Earth Radio crew. I still enjoy a lot of new music, and much of my collection is quite current. KSFM/Earth Radio really flipped my perspective, and I haven't been quite the same since.